BY CRAIG CAMPBELL
An away fixture at Grimsby Town. The hinterlands of voodoo Lincolnshire, especially if you’re a club with ambition. It’s 1983 and in a period of instability for Middlesbrough, the club are perilously close to their big fish in a small pond syndrome again.
The glory days seem a fading memory. For those on the away terraces, there have been too many trips like this in recent memory. Long slogs up a motorway with the promise of flair and class, only to be reduced to the slog and cartilage of their opponents’ level.
Lightning is about to strike, however. They say a working class man is satisfied if his team’s player sweats blood for the shirt but really his greatest wish is for time to stand still on the pitch. Elevation. An erection of the heart. That’s all the Ayresome Park faithful really wished for. A moment that makes you forget the long shifts at Seal Sands and the mortgage payments. It comes in the form of a homegrown teenager who looks so slight the Boro fans joke he must have been born in a bottle. Grimsby fans on the night just wish they could put him back there.
By the time, he skips off the pitch, Boro have won 3-0 and a star is born. Those in the away end will talk about it next day in smoke huts and sneaked moments away from the permanent glare of supervisors. They’ll exaggerate, of course, but that’s what aa football fans have in common. What they’ll all share, however, is their excited refrain: Stephen Bell, they’ll say. He’s a bit of a genius, alright.
There’s a peculiarity about Middlesbrough that sets it apart from the rest of the North East. Maybe it’s the chemical works that border it like some dystopian landscape and give it a nihilistic edge, especially at night when the flare stacks light up the horizon like lava monsters. It’s the alien strangeness local boy Ridley Scott based the scenery of his science fiction film Blade Runner on. Ridley is a local boy and also prodigiously talented. He’s escaped the area but like most with ambition he’ll always remember his origins: the art college at Hartlepool, the beautiful stillness of Redcar. Its eerie refrain will remain a creative influence on him for decades to come.
For a city boy like Malcolm Allison however, it must seem like one of Dante’s six circles of hell. Even the air seems different. As he sucks down on his expensive cigars the cleaners and back room staff put down to his London ways, he wants to tell them he lights so many for two reasons: first to get rid of the metallic taste in his throat everyone is telling him is down to his imagination and secondly to calm his rising nerves. Allison has inherited a pretty ordinary side in Boro’s history. The better players have shot off like the rats at the bottom of the transporter bridge when a torch shines on them, and what’s left behind move like they’re pulling a caravan around in a car park in Bridlington.
There are two players who excite Allison though. Just kids really, but they operate on a higher plane to the rest of them. The first is a Scottish dervish called Gary Hamilton. Despite the fact that he’s only seventeen he’s one of those rare midfielders who can both tackle and pick out a pass in the blink of an eye. Within ten minutes of seeing him play, Allison already knows he’s the team’s foundation. Hamilton has an old head on young shoulders. He doesn’t suffer fools either. He has read a report of him going to war with the Scotland under 18 coach Andy Roxburgh after an international youth game. Rather than see it as a lack of discipline, Allison figures correctly he has a rod of steel in him.
The other player in question is something else entirely. Allison has already heard whispers about the talented, skeletal kid reducing defences to ruin before he’s even walked through the gates at Ayresome Park. At a set of traffic lights in fact, on the way to the ground for his first day in charge, his car window is rattled by the thick knuckles of a scaffolder. ‘Make sure you play Belly, Allison,’ he barks. As a welcoming from a Grove Hill construction worker he can’t work out if it’s a piece of advice or a warning.
The scaffolder needn’t have worried. Allison was a shrewd observer of footballing talent. In many ways his vainglorious image of champagne and glamour models is a red herring to mask his talent. He only ever bursts into life in packed press rooms. Behind the scenes he’s one of the most forward-thinking coaches England will ever produce. His methods will even have an influence on one of Europe’s most infamous coaches three decades later. One Jose Mourinho will spend time with Allison during a managerial spell in Portugal. It’s said his unconventional methods will inspire him pretty much thereafter.
For Stephen Bell, the 1982/1983 season would prove to be a high pressured but mercurial one. Still aged only seventeen he’d confirm Malcolm Allison’s faith in him and end up scoring ten goals with a number of valuable assists. Rewarded with a four-year contract, his meteoric rise glimpsed at a sparkling future. If a skinny, seventeen-year-old could cut it in the physical melee of the Second Division, people would say, just imagine what he could do when he matured and filled out a bit.
For Middlesbrough however, trouble was on the horizon. A lacklustre team and troubling finances behind the scenes, meant disquiet was growing not only with the fans but also with their manager. In public Allison heaped praise on the likes of Bell and Hamilton, but in reality, he was using the youngsters’ potential to paper over the seismic cracks. The supporters seemed to subliminally feel it too. They began to rely a little too much on both players, especially Bell. Starved of success and entertainment at Ayresome Park, they would hang on his skill to increasingly get them out of trouble on a Saturday, and when it didn’t quite come off, they weren’t averse to turning on him too.
For Bell, such criticism seemed to have a negative effect more than most. He was a confidence player who could drift out of a game once his head dropped. Ayresome Park was renowned both for its tribalism and its fearsome atmosphere, but the fans also had the reputation for turning on the team too. These were difficult times for Teesside. Thatcher reigned like a cold witch in Downing Street and unemployment was high in the area. There was little release for those slowly being submerged under financial pressures other than watching their football team perform every other Saturday and drowning their sorrows in the pubs and clubs with a hedonism that was more like slow water boarding than real enjoyment.
The heavy drinking culture wasn’t just limited to the terraces. There had always been the influence of alcohol in football and Middlesbrough was no exception. The cliques within the Boro meant that participation in such sessions were pretty much a given. Such peer pressure both in and outside the club could be magnified times ten for a local lad made good, with money to burn in his pocket. Not that Bell took much persuading. It was well known in the area that from the onset, Bell had taken to the social aspect of being a professional footballer like a duck to water. By the end of 1983 he was a regular in the town’s Madison nightclub and not just at a weekend either. These were the days when you could go to nightclubs 5 nights a week. It was said around this time that Stephen Bell had his back slapped so many times around the pubs and clubs of Middlesbrough that it was surprising he didn’t line up the following season as a hunchback.
A rare lightning start to the following season by Middlesbrough and Bell meant that the happy times continued. They’d go six matches unbeaten and sit near to the top of the Second Division. The wheels were about to come off spectacularly, however. A losing streak of five consecutive games was the beginning of an almighty slump for the Boro which would lead to falling attendances and growing tension from the terraces as they seemed incapable of stopping the slide. With no transfer money to bring anyone in, Allison cut a dejected figure in the dugout. By mid-season he had even started to come out with some bizarre rhetoric saying they should rename themselves Cleveland Cowboys and play on Astro Turf, before delivering his infamous ‘it is better to die than face a lingering death’ speech on the club’s crumbling finances. Neither the fans nor directors were impressed with his philosophy and Allison had to go. The enigmatic Mal was great at building up the idea of a football dynasty only for it to crumble round his ears later on. In the English leagues especially, discipline and reality never really was Big Mal’s thing.
The same could have been said about Stephen Bell. By now in and out of the side, he still continued his social activities around the town, as if he was scoring a hat-trick every game. The trouble was that he was fast getting out of control, hanging out with a bad crowd and threatening to disappear altogether. At the club, they seemingly had more pressing concerns anyway. A quick managerial fix with Jack Charlton as caretaker manager was seen as a way to steady the ship and by the time he made way for Willie Maddren, decks were being cleared and a new disciplinarian age was being ushered into the club. Maddren, an ex Boro player and someone who was known as a consummate professional, wasn’t about to have the wool pulled over his eyes by any of the club’s young pistoleros. By the time he cast an alligators eye on the training ground at Stephen Bell, there was nothing to see anyway. The once glorious gifts he’d possessed had alarmingly disappeared. There were already cobwebs on a footballer who amazingly was still only twenty years old.
So began one of the longest, saddest demises North East football has ever seen. By 1985, Bell would leave Boro after having his contract cancelled and after a proposed move to Portsmouth fell through, that was pretty much it. His flickering talent had disappeared to a vanishing point. All that was left was inept performances at non-league and even Sunday league level. Pitches that weren’t worthy of his presence three years earlier, each rubbing away his brittle confidence at every touchline sigh and shake of the head. With everyone asking: what went wrong Stephen. What went wrong?
The boy at his hometown club was a curse too really. Stephen Bell could never quite disappear from the public eye altogether. Those jealous of his glory days loved nothing better than to regale how he was stumbling out of some pub or the other or telling lurid falsehoods of his private life. Exaggerating more and more until their greedy eyes lit up like fireflies in the Cleveland night, until finally they got their ghoulish wish. In 2001 he passed away from an alcohol related illness. He was just 36 years old.
At a pub in Middlesbrough, when news of Stephen Bell’s death broke, a group of young men sat at a table in a public house recalling their tales of him. Some are true, most are not and virtually none involve any of his undoubted football skill. One of them tells a story about Bell playing a Sunday league game after his halcyon days for Boro are well behind him. He tells of a hungover player having to go off at half-time, throwing up near the corner flag. ‘What a lad’, he says, and everyone laughs, apart from one man at a separate table in the corner, who looks sadly into the distance. He’d been in the away end at Grimsby that night in 1983. He’d been so excited his heart had nearly left his chest. He’d witnessed alchemy.
He half raises his pint to the sky as a mark of respect. As he does so, someone puts a pound in the jukebox. The first song that comes on he feels is no coincidence. It’s ELO’s ‘Strange Magic.’ The words cut through him immediately:
‘Oh, I’m never gonna be the same again.
Now I’ve seen the way it’s got to end.
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